The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”Ah, he thought, Tolstoy should have lived in a small country--not in Russia, which was a continent rather than a country. And why does he write as if the worst thing we can do to our fellowman is kill him? Everybody has to die and everybody fears death, but when we kill a man we save him from his fear which would otherwise grow year by year...One doesn’t necessarily kill because one hates: one may kill because one loves...and again the old dizziness came back as though he had been struck over the heart.”
Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds star in the 1944 movie of Ministry of Fear.
Arthur Rowe is a murderer.
”A murderer is regarded by the conventional world as something almost monstrous, but a murderer to himself is only an ordinary man--a man who takes either tea or coffee for breakfast, a man who likes a good book and perhaps reads biography rather than fiction, a man who at a regular hour goes to bed, who tries to develop good physical habits but possibly suffers from constipation, who prefers either dogs or cats and has certain views about politics.”
A murderer could be someone sitting next to you on the subway. It could be the man with the heavy jowls looking like an accountant, innocuous, boring, with blunt fingers and deceptively more power in those slumped shoulders than you might first believe. Or how about the woman sitting next to the Asian couple with the clicking knitting needles, flashing like swords even in the muted light, looking like an aging Kathleen Turner with crisp blue eyes that would hold your gaze as she slipped one of those needles under your ribcage and shoved it upward seeking your heart. Then, there is the youth hiding behind the Oakland Raiders hat and the wrap around sunglasses with the trashy underage girlfriend, her eyes as old as Egypt, twinned around his arm. He doesn’t weigh a buck twenty, not a threat to a grown man except that bulge under his jacket, the Sam Colt descendent, the great equalizer, can kill a better man, a bigger man, a more powerful man with just one jerk of the trigger.
Let’s set that aside for a moment.
“Tiger, darling,” Graham Greene’s wife used to say whenever she found a florid metaphor—and out it would go. His rival and fellow Catholic, Anthony Burgess, said that Greene sought in his writing “a kind of verbal transparency which refuses to allow language to become a character in its own right”. His voice is the driest of any great writer, drier than bone. From an article by Nicholas Shakespeare.
It all begins with Arthur Rowe deciding at the spur of the moment that he will attend a charity bazaar. It reminds him of tender memories of his youth. He guesses the weight of a cake, with real eggs, and doesn’t win. He gets his fortune told, and in the uncertain light he is mistaken for someone else, and the teller of fortunes plucks the thread of Rowe’s own destiny by giving him the “correct weight” for the cake. He wins the cake. This is during the Blitz.
”’I didn’t imagine war was like this,’ staring out at desolation. Jerusalem must have looked something like this in the mind’s eye of Christ when he wept….”
The Blitz was a good time to settle scores, an amazing opportunity to get away with murder, as people are being killed every day by bombs dropping from the sky and landmines. Food is scarce, and there are people that will kill for a cake with real eggs, but this cake is of interest to certain parties because of something else besides eggs in the batter. Arthur Rowe has been caught up in something sinister. There are people trying to kill him.
Graham Greene, I see you lurking between sentences, peering around the edges of paragraphs, pressed up, in the shadows, at the spine of the book.
Hey you, the guy lurking over there in the corner, come on into the room enter the frame.
Arthur Rowe launches his own investigation. He can’t go to the police because he doesn’t have a clue what to tell them. He hires a detective agency to help him try to discover who is trying to kill him. He meets a girl and her brother, twins, who offer to help him. He is accused of murder, which has the police after him as well as the killers. Rowe’s own past dogs him with every step.
”A murderer is rather like a peer: he pays more because of his title. One tries to travel incognito, but it usually comes out….”
He will be, for the rest of his life, on trial.
He is betrayed.
He is blown up.
He is incarcerated in an assisted living facility with his memories jumbled and missing. He pines for Dickens, whom he used to read over and over like other people read the Bible. He does have access to a book of Tolstoy, but finds little comfort there. (Books mentioned in books are always a comfort to me as if the author is giving me a wink of reassurance.) The investigative part of Rowe’s mind that was so essential to sinking him deeper into this nefarious plot is alive and well. He soon discovers that he is being held rather than being assisted.
He escapes, reluctantly.
”He put his hands on the dressing-table and held to it; he said to himself over and over again, ‘I must stand up, I must stand up.’ as though there were some healing virtue in simply remaining on his feet while his brain reeled with the horror of returning life.”
Things have changed in the two months he has been someone else. Not all of his memories have returned so he is not even a complete Arthur Rowe yet. The Twins, remember the twins, well they are not who he thought they were either.
He remembers his wife. He remembers what he has done. He sees it in everyone’s faces.
”He wants to warn them --don’t pity me. Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn’t safe when pity’s prowling around.”
Wonderful still shot from the 1944 movie starring Marjorie Reynolds directed by Fritz Lang.
This is Graham Greene at his best with a convoluted plot, with key elements hidden from us, and a host of characters impossible to trust. He puts us in the skin of Arthur Rowe, knowing only what he knows, which leaves us as bewildered as the main character. Greene plays on my own fears of being incarcerated without my own memories to defend myself, and yet, knowing full well that I’m not who they say I am. There is definitely a bit of Franz Kafka at play here. This book was published in 1943 during a time when all of England had been thrust into the war. Women and children are now at risk as much as a frontline soldier, with death whistling in everyone’s ears as it falls from the sky on a daily basis.
Like the plot of many episodes of Foyle’s War, one man’s troubles during such a time do not receive the same attention they would have been given before the war, but when it is discovered that the most dear secrets of England are in the wind, Rowe knows he can’t afford to fail. He is an unlikely hero who finds the courage to muster the shattered pieces of himself and help save a nation. Highly Recommended!!
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